Many of Scotland's most vulnerable children are let down by key plans that map out their futures - with more than half not including any specific proposals for education, it has emerged.
Even where the education of looked-after children is addressed, research suggests that the focus is on young people's problems rather than their abilities or ambitions.
A report by the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA) examines the cases of 250 young people on supervision requirements, which are drawn up in children's hearings and provide the legal basis for the looked-after status of 13,903 under-18s.
Every looked-after child must have in place a plan that addresses all their needs, including education.
But the SCRA research, involving children aged 3-17, finds that only 68 per cent of plans included any reference to education, and only 48 per cent included "specific actions" for the child's education.
"That less than a half of children in this research had plans that met their educational needs and how these would be addressed suggests that more needs to be done," say report authors Dr Gillian Henderson and Indiya Whitehead.
Only 6 per cent of children had plans that included proposals to help them realise their ambitions; plans were more likely to concentrate on a child's problems than what he or she could do.
It is a statutory requirement that local authorities take a long-term view of a child's education - but only 22 per cent of plans examined by researchers set out goals beyond the current school year. They also found that school representatives attended just 44 per cent of hearings involving the children, and suggest that this figure should be considerably higher.
Neil Hunter, SCRA's chief executive, said there was "already much concern" about the attainment of looked-after children, while Scottish government statistics show that they are eight times more likely to be excluded than the average rate.
"Ensuring that children and young people's learning needs in the broadest sense, that their abilities, talents and strengths are reflected in the help that they receive, is vital," he said.
"Providing that support is in the domain of many different professionals, and teachers and other educationalists are central to this."
The report, How much is education included in the plans of children on supervision requirements?, also raises concerns about the burden on social work staff: 98 per cent of reports and plans were produced by social work.
The national Getting It Right for Every Child policy calls for different agencies to work together on children's plans, with other professionals - including teachers - sometimes taking the lead.
But the study "raises questions on the extent that professionals in services other than social work are taking on the role of lead professional".
Children's hearings - led by volunteers - have traditionally been organised locally, but from June will answer to a new national body, Children's Hearings Scotland. Chief executive Bernadette Monaghan said it would tackle issues raised in the report, with training of panel members made a priority.
Interview, page 14
'THEIR EDUCATION IS NOT A PRIORITY'
Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of charity Who Cares? Scotland, believes the SCRA report is symptomatic of failings around the education of looked-after children.
"The education of these young people is not a priority, and a lot of it is to do with discrimination," he said. Too often they were judged on misbehaviour, with little thought of possible reasons behind that, he added.
Children, from the age of 4, were perceptive enough to know that they were being marginalised.
He believes schools should be graded by inspectors on how well they cater for looked-after children. "I don't think it will be a priority for them unless they are inspected on this," he said.
He is hopeful, however, that Getting It Right for Every Child and the Children and Young People Bill will improve the education of looked-after children.